Article

On the Reading of Product Owner's Manuals: Perceptions and Product Complexity

Abstract

This research focuses on the self-reported use of owner's manuals for automotive vehicles. The results indicate that owner's manuals are frequently not read. Nevertheless, people prefer owner's manuals to electronic presentations of the same product information. Implications for facilitating reader use of product documentation are discussed.
.
On the Reading
of
Product Owner’s Manuals:
Perceptions and Product Complexity
Brad Mehlenbacher
Technical CommunicationEnglish Department
North Carolina State University
Raleigh, NC 27695-81
05
Brad-m@unity.ncsu.edu
Michael
S.
Wogalter
Psychology Department
North Carolina State University
Raleigh, NC 27695-7801
Wogalter@ NCSU. edu
Kenneth
R.
Laughery
Psychology Department
Rice University
Houston,
TX
77005
hugher@ ru$ rice.edu
ABSTRACT
This research focuses on the self-reported use of owner’s manuals for automotive vehicles.
The results indicate that owner’s manuals are frequently not read. Nevertheless, people
prefer owner’s manuals to electronic presentations of the same product information.
Implications for facilitating reader use of product documentation are discussed.
INTRODUCTION
Most consumer products come with some
form of documentation such as an owner’s
manual, instructional sheets, and labels.
Frequently, these materials contain warnings
about potential hazards. To ensure safety and
health, people often need to gain necessary
information from accompanying documentation,
yet some research suggests that people may not
read this materia1 (Rettig, 1991; Schriver, 1997).
For some products such as automobile,
computer-related, and electronic products, the
documentation can very extensive (e.g., getting
started guides, user’s guides, reference manuals,
troubleshooting guides, online help systems,
tutorials, electronic performance support systems,
and
so
on). Research suggests that when people
believe that they are familiar with a product they
are less likely to read the documentation and
warnings (Wogalter, Godfrey, Fontennelle,
Desaulniers, Rothstein,
&
Laughery, 1987;
Wright, Creighton,
&
Threlfall, 1982). However,
despite this belief, people may not be
knowledgeable about many aspects
of
products
such as the hazards involved in their use.
Manufacturers may be assuming that people read
the entire manual when some people read only
parts or do not open it at all. Leonard and Kames
(2000), for example, found that only
6.8
percent
of 221 survey respondents claimed to have read
all
of
their vehicle owner’s manuals. Still, one
very basic issue that needs to be addressed is
whether people read the documentation at all
(Redish, 1993).
While there has been considerable research
in
recent years on warnings by Human Factors
researchers, most
of
it has been conducted on on-
product labels and environmental signs.
Concurrently, the field of technical
communication has grown substantially during
last 20 years (Rainey, 1999). Research on the
design and use of computer documentation has
increased (Bethke, Dean, Kaiser, Ort,
&
Pessin,
.
1981; Brockmann, 1992; Carroll, 1998) in
addition to studies of
the
similarities and
differences between hardcopy and online
documentation systems puffy, Palmer,
&
Mehlenbacher, 1993; Tomasi
&
Mehlenbacher,
1999). However, relatively few studies have given
emphasis to the use
of
hardcopy documents
Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society 46th Annual Meeting -- 2002
PROCEEDINGS of the HUMAN FACTORS AND ERGONOMICS SOCIETY 46th ANNUAL MEETING -- 2002730
designed for technological products and tools
(except, e.g., Ummelen, 1997; Vigilante
&
Wogalter, 1997; Wogalter, Vigilante,
&
Baneth,
1998; Young
&
Wogalter, 1990).
of owner’s manuals for automobiles. We asked
participants
if
had they read the owner’s manual
for the vehicle that they drive most often. We
appreciated that the term, “read,” can have
different meanings for different audiences.
Numerous researchers (Mehlenbacher,
in
press;
Redish, 1988; Redish, Battison,
&
Gold, 1985;
Sticht, 1985) make strong distinctions between
reading to learn and reading to do, arguing that
most people read documentation to do, that is, to
accomplish tasks. Mehlenbacher, Miller,
Covington, and Larsen (2000) speculate that many
other reading goals can occur, including for
example, reading to learn to do, reading to analyze,
reading to compare, confirm, or correct, and
reading to summarize. Moreover, course
instructors commonly experience instances where
students claim to have read and studied assigned
materials, yet received a failing grade on the exam.
Given this proviso, people were asked how
much they read of their owner’s manuals. We
asked people to report how much they typically
read by candidly recalling how much time they
spend browsing, searching, scanning, and using
information from their owner’s manuals.
which people would prefer various instructional
technologies relative to hardcopy owner’s
manuals. Do people believe that alternative media
presentations of product information (e.g., video,
CDDVD)
are
preferable or more useful than
conventional hardcopy documentation?
Our study focused primarily on the reading
In addition, our study examined the extent to
METHOD
Participants
Three-hundred eighty individuals
participated.
Fifteen
were dropped from the
analysis because of incomplete data. Sixty-one
percent were males (N
=
222). Fifteen percent
were non-Caucasians. Two-hundred forty-two
were undergraduate students at North Carolina
State University (mean age
=
21.1, SD
=
3.5), and
123 were non-students from various parts of
North Carolina (mean age
=
34.5,
SD
=
14.16).
The non-students reported having
an
average of
15.1 years of education (SD
=
2.1).
Materials and Procedure
The focus of concern in the present study
was a subset of items from a larger questionnaire
concerning various automobile-related topics. The
survey elicited basic demographic information
(e.g., regarding age, sex, education), and requested
information about the vehicle that respondents
drove most frequently.
In
reference to this vehicle,
users were asked, “Have you read the owner’s
manual for this vehicle?” The responses were
coded as no
(0)
and yes (1). If they answered yes,
they ‘were then asked to “estimate how
much
of
the owner’s manual you have read?” Participants
responded by circling a percentage value on a
horizontal scale from
0%
to 100%
in
increments
of 10%. The scale was anchored with the terms
“none of
it”
at
0%,
“about half of
it”
at
50%’
and “all of it” at 100%.
following statements:
Another section of the survey contained the
Recent technology has provided the
potential for manufacturers to present
information
in
new ways beyond the
usual paper-based methods (such as an
owner’s manual). For example, the
contents of an owner’s manual could be
presented on videotape. For each of the
following items, please give a
0
to 8
rating using the scale below to answer
the question:
How much would you
prefer
receiving
product-related information concerning
its features, maintenance, repair,
warnings, etc., through the following
kinds of media? The specific items
were:
(a)
Direct instruction
from
a
live
person
(b)
Directly attached to the product
(c) On the World Wide Web (WWW)
(d) On videocassette
(e) In an owner’s manual
(f)
OnCDDVD
A 9-point Likert-type preference scale
appeared below the items and contained the
following word anchors together with the even-
numbered ratings:
(0)
do not prefer at all, (2)
somewhat prefer,
(4)
prefer, (6) very much prefer,
and (8) extremely prefer.
Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society 46th Annual Meeting -- 2002
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RESULTS
Reading the Owner’s Manual
Across all persons
(N
=
365), 89 percent of
the participants stated that they owned a vehicle.
Of the others who did not own a vehicle, 80%
stated that they had access to one. 58.9% reported
that they had read the owner’s manual of the
vehicle that they drive most often. Of those who
stated that they read the manual, the mean
percentage of the manual (reportedly) read was
52.7% (SD
=
27.8).
Analyses were conducted to examine
differences of reported manual reading between
demographic levels. A median split of age at
22
years produced nearly equal groups of young
versus older participants. More of the older
participants (65%) reported having read the
owner’s manual than the younger participants
(53%),
X2=
5.87, p<.05; however, those who read
the manuals, the amount read did not differ
significantly between the two groups. There was
no sex difference between those who reported
reading the manual and those who did not, but of
those who reported having read the manual, males
reported having read more of the
it
(57%) than
females (45%), pc.01. Non-students (67%)
reported having read the manual more than
students
(55%),
X2=
4.62, p<.05. Furthermore,
non-students who read the manual reported
reading more of it (59%) than students (49%).
Instructional Technologies
Preferences for alternative instructional
technologies presenting product instructions and
warnings were analyzed using a repeated
measures analysis of variance (ANOVA); it
showed a significant effect,
F(5,
1820)
=
55.2,
pc.0001. The means
in
Table 1 show high-to-low
preferences as follows: owner’s manual, attached
to the product,
WWW,
Live, CDDVD, and video.
Comparisons among the means using Tukey’s
Honesty Significant Difference (HSD) test
showed that
all
differences were significant except
between CDDVD and live presentation.
Demographic factors (sex, age group,
student versus non-student, and readers versus
non-readers of their vehicle’s owner’s manual)
were added separately to an ANOVA containing
instructional technology preferences to produce a
series of mixed-model designs. Sex did not
produce a main effect but produced a significant
interaction
with
instructional technologies, F(5,
1815)
=
2.28, p<.05. Simple effects analysis
revealed that the only sex difference
in
preferred
instructional technology was for CD/DVD, with
males
(A4
=
3.81)
preferring this medium more
than females
(M
=
3.18). There were no
significant main effects or interactions involving
age group and student versus non-student
categories in the ANOVA model described above.
An ANOVA that included a grouping factor
according to whether they reportedly read their
vehicle’s owner’s manual showed both a
significant main effect, F(1,363)
=
8.69,p<.01,
and an interaction with instructional technologies,
F(5,
1815)
=
7.79,~<.0001.
In
general,
individuals who reported reading the owner’s
manual gave higher ratings to the instructional
technologies
(M
=
4.19) than those who reported
not reading the manual
(M
=
3.82). The
interaction means showed that the general
technology-preference pattern shown in Table 1
held by both readers and non-readers of their
owner’s manual, except owner’s manual readers
preferred the owner’s manual
(M
=
6.12) and
CDDVD
(M
=
3.80) more than the non-readers
did
(Ms
=
4.47 and 3.23, respectively, psc.05).
Table
1
Mean preferences (and standard deviations)
for
instructional technologies.
Instructional Technologies Mean
SD
Owner’s manual 5.44
2.21
Attached to product 4.61
2.40
www
4.17
2.44
CDDVD 3.56
2.45
Live 3.53
2.74
Video 2.90
2.41
DISCUSSION
Most studies of manual use force users to
interact directly with certain types
of
product
manuals (e.g., Ummelen, 1997) rather than asking
them if they would use them for products they
already own. The results showed that about 41
percent of our respondents reported that they did
not read the owner’s manual of the vehicle that
they drive most often.
Of
those who reported that
they read their owner’s manual, the mean
percentage reported was about
50
percent.
Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society 46th Annual Meeting -- 2002
PROCEEDINGS of the HUMAN FACTORS AND ERGONOMICS SOCIETY 46th ANNUAL MEETING -- 2002732
Importantly, only
11
participants (5.2%) claimed
to have read
90-100
percent of their manual (cf.,
Leonard
&
Kames, 2000). Clearly then, many
people
are
operating vehicles without taking the
time to familiarize themselves with the
documentation that accompanies the vehicle, a
finding that supports Redish, Battison, and
Gold’s (1985) assertion that, “If
.
.
.
owners read
the [manual] at all, they are likely to skim through
it when they first get it. After that, they will
probably only go back to it when they need a
specific piece
of
information (p. 135).
Our findings complement those of Leonard
and Kames (2000) who found that, of 221
participants surveyed, only 6.8 percent claimed to
have read all of their vehicle owner’s manual and
6.3 percent read none of their owner’s manual.
Notably, 62.4 percent of Leonard and Kames’s
(2000) participants claimed to have read “special
topics” in their owner’s manuals, and this finding
is supported by
Carroll
(1998) and Schriver’s
(1997) research on manual use.
Given that some people are not reading
some (and few
are
reading all) of their owner’s
manuals, the issue of how much they would prefer
alternative formats such
as
VCR-based and via the
WWW
was examined. Hardcopy owner’s
manuals were most favored, followed by an
attachment and then followed by electronic
methods. Interestingly, most households have
television VCRs, yet the respondents preferred
this medium the least. In some respects, this
finding might be explained in terms of familiarity:
people are familiar with using paper-based
materials. New users of alternative media are often
presented with new challenges in terms of search
mechanisms (Barnett, 1998), navigation
(Zimmerman, Tipton, Biking,
&
Green, 1993),
and
physical
and
rhetorical differences between
hardcopy books and online systems (Selber,
Johnson-Eilola,
&
Mehlenbacher, 1997;
Spyridakis
&
Isakson, 1991). Another issue in
how much people
are
likely to read hardcopy
documentation or information presented via
alternative media appears to be that people more
likely to read the one type seem more likely to use
the other; that is, our results suggested a
relationship between reading hardcopy manuals
and using alternative media.
Finally, given the supplemental nature of the
information contained in vehicle owner’s manuals,
manufacturers should consider attaching
important warning and safety information directly
on the vehicle. When a complete description
cannot
be
placed on the product, manufacturers
should refer people to the owner’s manual.
FUTURE
RESEARCH
The present study explored several aspects
related
to
user preferences in terms of user
manual use for automobiles. The results showed
that for vehicles only about
60
percent of our
participants reported that they read their owner’s
manuals at all and, of that group, the majority of
participants read only an average of fifty percent
of the documentation that accompanied products
that they purchase. Very few participants
(5.2%)
claimed to have read
90
percent or more of their
product manuals.
In general these finding are consistent with
Brockmann’s (1992) argument that most adult
learners
Are impatient
.
.
.
and want
to
get started
quickly on something productive
Skip around in manuals
.
.
.
and rarely read
them fully
Are discouraged by large manuals. (p.
113).
Manufacturers often give short shrift to
documents accompanying products, yet they
probably know that the same documentation
contains information critical to their products’ use
and safety. If a manual is critical to a product’s
use, then manufacturers ought to begin examining
and evaluating the utility of information they send
with their products. Future research should focus
on the perceived reading habits of people using
products other than automobiles, using products
that range in technological complexity, familiarity,
and perceived hazardousness.
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... Concerning user education, the most frequent scenario will match the Baseline conditions in most cases (Abraham, Reimer, & Mehler, 2018;Mehlenbacher, Wogalter, & Laughery, 2002) thus resembling the power-law functions of performance development (Forster, Hergeth, Naujoks, Beggiato, Krems, & Keinath, 2019b) and understanding (Forster, Hergeth, Naujoks, Beggiato, Krems, & Keinath, 2019a). ...
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... A previous study announced that about 70% ACC owners did not understand warnings from the systems about the limitations of the systems and many users trusted the systems excessively in some scenarios [4]. Another research also reported that about 40% users of vehicles did not read the owner's manual, while the rest would read only half of it [5]. Meanwhile, it was found that collisions occurred in some experiments due to driver's insufficient knowledge and inappropriate trust level of the systems [6]. ...
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